We have discussed the incompatibility of our genes with our current living environment in general, we have discussed food in general and exercise in general. So what more is there? Another matter that definitely deserves attention in this series is the effect of stress on our sense of well-being. Not only do we have too much stress these days, the stress is also completely different from the kind we are evolutionarily used to. It is different in two respects. First of all it is less tangible. In the past the dangers that we faced were pretty straightforward. It would be the bear that we’d bump into or the lack of food that day. Nowadays, we hardly have to battle wild animals or hunger anymore in our neck of the woods, but it is mortgages, stressful jobs and the chronic illness of a loved one that we can’t predict the outcome of. Secondly, our original stress would cause short term stress, we would fight and/or escape the bear (or get killed, which would make the stress short term as well). Our current stress often doesn’t go away for a long, long time.
Our evolutionary way of dealing with stress cannot cope with our current type of stressors
Our body has been given a very effective way of dealing with stress: movement. You spotted a bear? Your body will get everything in gear to either fly or fight the animal. Hungry? Your body will be geared up to hunt for food. How does this work? Basically, your system will get a signal from your brain and will then drop everything it’s doing and make sure anything necessary for the fight or flight, like your muscles, gets all the input it needs: energy and oxygen. Your bowels will become permeable, all the organs that are not needed for this process will be turned down low and your blood pressure will rise to increase the blood flow to all your relevant body parts. And you will get moving. Either up a tree, throwing your spear or searching for edibles.
This is the only way your body knows how to deal with stress. You can imagine it isn’t of much use when dealing with current day stressors. Still, your body cannot distinguish between evolutionary and modern stress. It will react in exactly the same way. Only your running and fighting doesn’t actually help, at least not in the long run. So the stress reaction is prolonged, and prolonged, and prolonged. All that time your gut is permeable and not filtering out of your food what should be filtered out, the organs that are not related to a stress reaction are sabotaged and so on. You get the picture and it is not pretty. It might even be the case that prolonged stress is even more damaging to health than any of the other factors.
Rethinking stress and how to deal with it
It is really hard to avoid stress in our current day society. Some are less susceptible to feeling stress than others. Some of us deal with stressful situations day after day, but don’t seem to be affected. They are the lucky ones. But what if we are one of these people that worries and feels the stress urgently? As we have established prolonged stress poses a threat to our health. So, how do we limit the damage that stress does to us? First of all we have to face the fact that a major cause of stress is fear. Where we were evolutionary afraid to lose our lives, nowadays our fears are less dramatic. They wreck havoc nonetheless. Fear of loss, fear of the unknown, they paralyse us and control us. The contradiction is that our need to feel in control leave us less in control of our mind and body as the stress that we feel takes over large parts of our sense of well-being.
I will discuss fear and how to deal with it in a later blog. In the meantime I would definitely suggest to ask around for good mindfulness courses if you find yourself severely incapacitated by stress. Mindfulness and other techniques to deal with these feelings of fear are a good way to start regaining control over how we deal with the cards that life deals us. Of course, you are also welcome to contact me for coaching in this area. For now, I’d like to share the words of a very wise man that still walks this planet, the Dalai Lama:
If a problem can be solved it is no use worrying about it. If it can’t be solved, worrying will do no good. In other words, either way, it is no use worrying. So, you might as well stop.
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